Breakfast (Psst. It's a euphemism). Photo: John Moore/Getty Images
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Rule one of the Breakfast Club: there’s no place more embarrassing to see someone you know

Does a breakfast taken in the first term of the Thatcher administration still count?

And so to – well, how shall I describe the place where I am sitting? There are people with delicate sensibilities out there, some of whom write to me, more in sorrow than in anger, when I use a rude word in this column. I am not saying these people are unaware of or squeamish about the facts of life; in fact, I consider them the nation’s backbone, and probably the kind of people who can be relied on to make you a decent cup of tea when they offer you one.

So let us say ... let us say I am at a place called the Breakfast Club.

The Breakfast Club is the place you go to when, for example, a lady says she might like to have breakfast with you, but wants assurances over and above your word that you have not, by reason of having had breakfast with another lady at any previous point in your life, contracted anything she might catch, thus marring or putting a dampener on her having breakfast with either you or anyone else in the future. I am referring, of course, to unprotected breakfast.

One’s word in this matter is not enough. There is a character in The Archers – so crooked, as the sublime Nancy Banks-Smith describes him, that he could hide behind a spiral staircase – who has been accused by his ex-wife of fathering her child; he refuses to “play her twisted game” by having a DNA test. His current partner may be deluded enough to believe him but it is only a matter of time before she learns the error of her ways.

So, it is with a squeaky-clean conscience that I turn up to the Breakfast Club. I know where I have had my breakfasts and exactly whom with for many years now. But there is still a stigma attached to such places, the faint echo of sniggers at postwar cartoons from the more risqué magazines. I look about myself. I’ve been having the feeling, very strongly, all day long, that I am going to run into someone I know. I put this down mainly to the fact that I’ve been bustling about London on an errand for myself all afternoon, and that even though there are ten million sinners in the city, you’re more likely to meet one of the few you know on the Tube or some other public place than in the bedroom of your Hovel, eating Frazzles.

The waiting room is large and partitioned; but at one point a couple of us, sitting in one of the outlying regions, are asked to go back to the area just opposite the admissions and pre-check interview desks, “so we can see how many people are waiting”. Apparently a significant proportion of those who attend the Breakfast Club lose their nerve at some point and do a runner before they are called. Anyway, this move places me in an area in which seven or eight people are waiting in close proximity to each other; if you put a Monopoly board on the table in the middle we could all have a game together without anyone having to stretch.

Interestingly, although there are distinctly separate Male and Female waiting rooms once registration has been done, until then it would seem the NHS likes us all, men and women alike, to get chummy to begin with. All this while answering questions on a form that some might consider to be intrusive – but are, I concede, entirely relevant. Have I ever had anal breakfast? Golly. Have I ever had breakfast with a man? Well, at the university I was at, the only way you were going to have breakfast with a woman student was if you owned half of Devon or were already a woman, so . . . But does a breakfast taken in the first term of the Thatcher administration still count?

I try not to stare but, as Terence put it, Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto; also, it would appear that the women here are more attractive than average. “Hello, lovely,” says the admin clerk to one exceptionally attractive woman, loud enough for all to hear, and proceeds to chat her up. The best place? Opposite me is an aged Muslim man. I can tell he is Muslim because of the headgear, the beard, and the fact that his phone’s ringtone is a chanted verse from the Quran. When he gets up, he walks with a gait strongly suggestive of intense genital chafing.

I also notice, with a certain amount of pleasure, that I am by no means the oldest man there. “You see?” I feel like saying. “There’s life in us old dogs yet. There are still women out there who . . .” and while I’m looking at the back of a new arrival’s head, he turns and sees me and, with a big smile on his face, advances towards me, his hand outstretched in familiar greeting. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.